Facing incessant droughts due to climate change, many women in southern Africa are adopting alternate practices like goat herding to sustain their families.
Harare: From planting maize to trying tobacco and cotton on her fields, 44-year-old mother of four Silvia Hungwe says she has seen it all as she wrestles with effects of climate change which have caused her crops to fail each farming season.
Seated under a tree as she talks to InDepthNews (IDN) in Mbudzi on the outskirts of Harare, an area that has turned into a hive of goat trading activity over the years, Hungwe – who has now turned to keeping goats – is on the lookout for customers.
A number of other women like Hungwe are strolling nearby with their goats, eagerly approaching each passer-by in the hope of doing business.
“I tried farming back in my rural home in Mwenezi district in Masvingo Province, but climatic conditions never favoured me as my crops failed me each season,” says Hungwe. “As a result, I decided to go into goat breeding and I bring the goats here to sell. Goats are resistant to drought and whether there are rains or no rains, they survive against all odds.”
Hungwe explains that her husband opted to cross over to neighbouring South Africa almost a decade ago after he realised that farming was not rewarding him in the village, primarily due to the effects of climate change.
“I have not heard from him ever since he left for South Africa around 2007. He just said farming here in the rural areas was not helping him because there are no rains or at times too much rains and he had to try other things across the border. So I said, well, I have to soldier on here and try other ways.”
According to the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency, there are approximately 350,000 active female farmers in this southern African nation.
With incessant crop failure in Zimbabwe, official statistics from the country’s Ministry of Small and Medium Enterprises and Cooperative Development show that there are approximately 136,000 goat breeders countrywide, ranging from ordinary communal goat breeders to peri-urban goat breeders, 20% of them women.
Climate change experts say women here have become resilient in the face of the changing climatic conditions which have resulted in huge crop failure over the years.
“Many homes, be it in the rural or urban areas are being headed by women who daily come face to face with the effects of climate change because their husbands have either died or migrated to greener pastures after failing to adjust to the climate change impacts back home,” Martin Gombe, a climate change officer for Zimbabwe’s environment, water and climate ministry, told IDN.
With droughts wreaking havoc in vast areas of Zimbabwe, recently worsened by floods that hit the entire country at the beginning of 2017, a majority of women here have taken up so-called climate-smart agriculture (CSA) as food deficits have taken a knock on them and their children.
CSA reduces exposure, sensitivity or vulnerability to climate variability or change through practices and technologies that sustainably increase productivity and support farmers’ adaptation to climate change.
Environment Africa, a regional African non-governmental organisation responding to the continent’s environmental and climatic needs, says climate-smart agriculture is working to help Zimbabwe’s struggling women farmers win their battle against the impact of climate change.
“Climate-smart agriculture is helping women farmers cope with changes in the climate and extreme weather events as they are gradually becoming breadwinners in their homes and it is leading to improved agricultural productivity, incomes and building resilience among female farmers, most of whom now head families,” Barnabas Mawire, Environment Africa country director in Zimbabwe, told IDN.
Many female Zimbabwe farmers in remote areas, like Lydia Ganduri from Mwenezi district in Masvingo province, provide living testimonies of women who have taken up the challenge of confronting climate change head on.
“It’s often hot here or we have floods, but for me drought has become a thing of the past,” Ganduri told IDN. “I am growing drought-resistant small grains crops like sorghum and millet, and I do this on my own because my husband ditched me and I don’t even know where he is now.”
“Growing drought resistant crops has made me excel in farming and my life has improved since I am now sending my children to school through selling my extra crop yields,” she added.
The war by African women against climate change is being waged not only in Zimbabwe, but also to the north in Zambia, where women have been making their mark.
Speaking at the launch of Climate Smart Agriculture Zambia in June last year, Emma Donnelly, head of the UK Department for International Development (DFID) in Zambia, noted that “two-thirds of the labour force in Zambia is engaged in agriculture, 78% of whom are women farmers.”
Through DFID, the UK government is working with the Conservation Farming Unit (CFU) – a non-profit Zambian organisation established to promote climate smart agricultural practices – to support rural Zambian farming families to improve livelihoods through building their resilience to climate change.
Lucia Mwansa from Chibombo village in Luapula province is one of the many Zambian women now practising climate-smart agriculture. “I am practising climate-smart agriculture; I am also practising organic farming and over the years I have managed to keep my family going after my husband died, and so drought has rarely affected me,” she told IDN.
“Climate-smart agriculture has enabled me to grow alternative crops used either for home consumption or for selling on the market to improve my income at home, and with this practise my children have advanced so well in their education,” Mwansa added.
In Lesotho, which the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has characterised as one of the countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, women farmers have also emerged as fierce climate change fighters.
One such farmer, Lerato Kerefese, told IDN: “I rear my goats, which are drought resistant; I also rear my home-grown chickens which also survive under very difficult climatic conditions, and without my husband who is based in Johannesburg in South Africa, I have made a huge difference in my family as I take care of our children on my own.”
With climate change impacts impacting heavily on women in southern Africa, many single mothers like Hungwe say they have to overcome the climate challenges whatever the circumstances.
“We have no choice,” says Hungwe. “If we don’t stand to defeat climate change as mothers, we all stand to perish with our children.”
This report is part of a joint project of the Secretariat of the ACP Group of States and InDepth News, flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.